The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 2/Folk-Lore Terminology (311–6)

950643The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 2 — Folk-lore Terminology (311–6)


THE question raised in the last number of the Journal by Mr. Gomme is one of great importance. It is expedient that a precise and authoritative definition should be forthcoming both of the word folk-lore itself and of the chief terms usually employed by folk-lorists.

According to Rule No. 1 of our Society, our object is "the preservation and publication of popular traditions, legendary ballads, local proverbial sayings, superstitions and old customs, and all subjects relating to them." There would, therefore, be warrant in affirming that folk-lore is the study of popular traditions, &c. &c. But does the term as commonly employed bear such a wide signification? and should it, if strictly employed, bear such a narrow one? Both questions must, I think, be answered in the negative. Such a definition as I have indicated would, we instinctively feel, be wanting both in scope and precision. I would venture to define the term as follows:—"Folk-lore is anthropology dealing with primitive man." I do not include biology in anthropology. Biological phenomena are the same in man as in all other animals; psychological phenomena, on the other hand, are undoubtedly different. Anthropology, the science of man, confines itself legitimately to what is special to man. With this exclusion, however, I use the word anthropology in its widest sense. One other word in my formula requires itself to be defined—the word "primitive"; I use this somewhat loosely, not as designating rigidly and precisely the absolute first stage of culture, but nevertheless an essentially low stage, the dominant characteristic of which is that in it all knowledge is at once empirical and traditional. If we examine ourselves closely, we find that next to nothing of our store of knowledge has been acquired either empirically or traditionally; on the contrary, the whole tendency of our education has been to replace in our minds the impressions derived from our senses and the facts gathered from folk-tradition, by conceptions due to the deliberate and trained exercise of reason. We are "civilised men"; the vast majority of our fellows are in this sense not civilised. Using the word very roughly, the Murri, the Maori, the Aztec, the Dorsetshire hind, may all be said to be in a "primitive " stage, and the study of man in such a stage is folk-lore.

If this is so, folk-lore must, if the study is to be rendered practicable, be split up into different branches, each of which will correspond to a section of anthropology dealing with civilised man. I would suggest some such division as follows:—

(1) Folk-belief, corresponding . to the study of religion and philosophy, and embracing every form and manifestation of popular faith.

(2) Folk-wont, corresponding to the study of law and institutions.

(3) Folk-leechdom, corresponding to the study of medicine.

(4) Folk-tradition, corresponding to the study of history.

(5) Folk-fancy, the study of the folk-tale, the folk-song, the folkplay.

(6) Folk-wit, the study of proverbs, riddles, jests, local sayings, and quips.

These last two classes may be grouped together in one, and called Folk-literature.

(7) Folk-craft, corresponding to the study of art and industry.

(8) Folk-speech, corresponding to the study of philology, grammar, rhetoric, and metre.

I should prefer another term for No. 4, folk-tradition, but can think of no other.

It will be seen that I give a very much wider scope to the word folk-lore than is usual, and that I look upon as legitimately belonging to it subjects with which the Society has never dealt. I feel some doubt about my class 8. If the study of speech be really, as many philologists hold, a physiological rather than a psychological science, it should be excluded on the same ground upon which I have already excluded biology. In any case it may be practically excluded, as its interests are already well cared for by active and capable workers. But the Society should, I maintain, look upon the other seven classes as its province. If mine, or any equally far-reaching definition, be adopted, an authoritative statement to that effect should be made, and the Society should press upon all Members the importance of only using the term in the sense stated, and should insist upon their doing so in all communications addressed to the Journal.

If my definition be good, it is, of course, absurd to speak of folklore and comparative mythology as being synonymous. At the most it can be urged that folk-belief and comparative mythology touch each other at a great many points, a fact which by no means necessitates the confounding together of the two studies. The relation between them may be stated thus: all, or nearly all, the facts of comparative mythology are to be found in folk-belief in solution; a great many facts of folk-belief are to be found in comparative mythology crystallised. The facts are essentially the same in both cases, but the one study deals with them at one, the other at another stage. It is when they have become at once rigid and systematised by passing through the hands of an hierarchical class, yet capable of development by falling under the artistic influence of the craftsman and the philosophic influence of the thinker, that comparative mythology has to do with them; before then they are but a portion of folk-belief. The two studies thus go hand-in-hand, and cannot be carried on at all without perpetual reference from one to the other.

With respect to terminology, I do not think I can do better than reprint the following notes, originally printed for use of Members of the Folk-Tale Committee alone:—

"There is no exact English equivalent for the German word Sage; neither 'myth' nor 'tradition' conveys the full meaning. Sage enters in German into a number of compound words, such as Sagform, a term which comprehends every species of mythic expression; Sagwissenschaft, for which we only have in English the clumsy 'comparative mythology' or 'storyology,' neither of which is adequate; Sagzug, which takes in the idea of our 'incident,' and a great deal more, as it denotes not only separate parts of the action but also the pictorial features, e.g., the hammer of Thor is a Sagzug, just as much as his casting it at the Midgard snake. The Sagzug is the unit of a Saggliederung, and several Sagzüge combine into a Sage (in its more restricted sense), which may bo defined as the story of the adventures of a god or hero. Many Sagen clustering around one person form a Sagkette, and the connection of several such Sagketten a Sagkreis (cycle). The Sagschatz (Sagtreasure) of a people comprehends the entirety of Sagkreisen, Sagketten, independent Sagen, and independent Sagzüge. Thus, the Odysseus Sage, viewed as a whole, is made up of: the Sagkette of Odysseus' adventures before Troy; the Sagkette of his wanderings; the Sage of the punishment of the wooers; whilst it is a member of the Trojan Sagkreis, and a portion of the Hellenic Sagschatz.

"Other compounds of the Sage follow: Sagbildung, Sagentwickelung, Sagverwandlung, Sagumgestaltung, Sagverwandtschaft, Saggattung, Sagstofif, Saggötter or -helden, Weltsage, Gottersage, Heldensage, Ortssage, Cultussage, Sagenmasse, Sagenhaft—all of which have in German a definite and precise meaning, and to scarcely any of which is there an exact English equivalent. It is necessary, however, if folk-lore is to be treated scientifically, that the ideas contained in the German words given above should find expression in English. In some cases this can perhaps best be done by borrowing words from comparative philology or the natural sciences.

"The precise equivalent of the German word märchen should be fixed. The English term 'folk-tale' has at once a wider and a more limited meaning, e.g., it would be used of many jest-tales which the Germans would range under the heading 'Schwank' (another word for which there is no recognised English equivalent), and it would not be used of the Odyssey tales, many of which are genuine märchen. The German Thiermärchen (story in which the characters are animals) has likewise no English equivalent, our word 'fable' denoting quite a different species of composition. Another German word which calls for precise translation is the already mentioned 'Schwank.' This is the more necessary, as J. G. v. Hahn divides the whole of what we call folk-tales into 'Märchen,' and 'Schwänke,' a division corresponding in the main to Mr. Ralston's 'mythological' and 'non-mythological' classes (a terminology which has the defect in my eyes of begging the question whether any of these tales be 'mythological' in the strict sense of that word or no).

"J. G. v. Hahn looks upon Märchen and Schwank as organically different forms of expression, the first being a variety of the Sagform, the latter not; and conclusions drawn from a study of the one class being in no way applicable to the other. The main difference between the two classes is stated by him to be as follows: a märchen presents a complete action, and is an organic whole; its tendency is edifying, and the requirements of poetical justice are strictly preserved, whatever cause of offence may be given to modern ideas by the moral conduct of the actors. In the Schwank, on the other hand, the action is of secondary importance, the presentment of a comic motif being the main point. Its tendency is humorous, and poetical justice is disregarded. It is heard with pleasure by men, whilst the märchen's true home is where women and children assemble. It will be seen therefore that an exact definition of these two words will in itself be an important contribution to classification."

I would make one suggestion as far as the word myth is concerned. Among the Members of the Society workers on the New English Dictionary are doubtless to be found. Will not some of these come forward and work out in these pages an exhaustive lexicographical account of the word? This will show better than anything else the chaotic variety of meanings attached to the word, and will, at the same time, furnish materials for a fresh definition, which, it is to be hoped, may become the standard one. I hold by the definition I gave in the fourth volume of the Folk-Lore Record, p. 39: a myth embodies in human form primitive man's conception of a non-human action, until a better one is forthcoming, and I should never use the word save in that sense.

The above remarks will, I hope, serve as a starting-point for a fruitful discussion.

As an instance of the necessity for some decision as to what folklore really aims at, I would refer to the following letter in the Library Journal of August 1884: —

"The Place of Folk-Lore in a Classification.—A Problem, by C. A. Cutter.—I have a division Legends, under Literature, and I had put in a division Folk-lore under Religions. It would be by no means easy to say of some books whether they should go in the one or the other. But I have long been dissatisfied with this classing, though I find others have adopted the same. Mr. Dewey, for instance, in his index, refers from Folk-lore to Comparative mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, Norse mythology; Mr. Perkins refers to Mythology in general. Oriental, Classical, Scandinavian, German, blank; Mr. Smith, to Belles-lettres, division Fiction, sub-division Folk-lore, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, &c., adding a reference to Comparative mythology. But there is much in folk-lore that is not religion or literature. There is much medicine and natural history, and a good deal that illustrates manners and customs and sports. Folk-fore is the philosophy, the religion, the science, and the literature of the people; of the uninstructed, the untrained, the blundering, the confused. It is unphilosophical philosophy, superstitious religion, unscientific science, and unwritten literature Why should its science be put under religion, or its religion and science under literature, or its natural history under philosophy? Why should it be put in any class? Why should it not be a class by itself? And, if it is allowed an independent standing, it should come, since like Lord Bacon it takes all knowledge to be its province, not in any of the six great divisions, but in what I have called Generals and Preliminaries, where the Encyclopaedias and books of "universal erudition" are to go. If it were to be put under one of the main classes, I might present the claims of Primitive culture as a division of Anthropology, itself a division of the compound class Zoology, or of Antiquities, and Manners and Customs, one of the side historical sciences. I think I have given a sufficient variety of choice; but perhaps the reader can add some other place."

This, it appears to me, sets forth the practical inconvenience of the present uncertainty.